Jewish Organizations Helping to Rebuild Tornado-Stricken State

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

When natural disasters strike, American donors often respond quickly and generously. Relief after the Haitian earthquake in 2010 brought almost unprecedented outpourings of dollars and volunteers from across the globe, but especially from Americans. But what happened earlier this year when fierce weather hit parts of the Southeast and other sections of the United States?

Knowing that donors’ response time to disasters is generally no more than three months duration, we looked to Jewish responses to the devastation faced by people in Alabama just two months ago. It seems that even more volunteer assistance may happen!

While Jewish organizations immediately developed ways to funnel dollars to respond to communities hit by the disaster, we looked to the leadership of Birmingham, Alabama’s Jewish community to see how they called for help and developed action plans, and how they and other American Jews responded. (Note that most of Alabama’s Jewish facilities and community institutions, as well as Jewish individuals, were spared serious devastation.)

The storms definitely impacted the three Jewish congregations in Birmingham and the panoply of Jewish social service and human service agencies. The 200 mile-per-hour winds on April 27th destroyed homes and businesses across the city. Luckily, the Jewish houses of worship were spared in the path of natural destruction and other Jewish facilities were barely touched.

Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation, has stood for nearly 130 years. It may have deflected the wind gusts of the tornado but the leadership decided immediately to confront the challenges of the losses to the local community. A sense of obligation, dedication and commitment prompted an organized program of immediate outreach to people of all diversities and religious affiliations in order to help a community in dire need. Their efforts included recruiting those unscathed locally and calling on members of Jewish congregations around the country to come to Birmingham and volunteer. Their project, entitled “Teyn Yad” (Lend a Hand), has become an unprecedented volunteer outpouring and is attracting widespread attention for its innovative thinking and immediacy of response!

The project is one of several that the Jewish community of Birmingham is coordinating. The approach that pervaded the efforts focused on local help but also features inviting Jews to Birmingham to volunteer together in a massive re-building effort. The volunteers would receive home hospitality, meals and a place to worship in exchange for volunteering in areas where the tornado had a devastating impact. Every volunteer would be valued in the cleanup, which will continue throughout the summer and beyond.

Temple Emanu-El hired Bob Gross to coordinate rebuilding efforts. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he was, along with his wife and other Alabama transplants, unprepared for the wrath of the storm. He intimated that “people not from Alabama didn’t take the tornado seriously. The severity of this tornado may better alert people and save lives when the next tornado strikes.”

Gross explained that, as part of their cleanup efforts, the congregation has partnered with “Hands on Birmingham” to place volunteers in the right areas. The congregation has also fostered partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Christian Service Mission.

Temple Emanu-El is following the commandment and spirit of “Hachnasat Orchim” (Welcoming a Stranger). To date Temple Emanu-El has recruited more than 75 volunteers from congregations in California, New York, Virginia, Kentucky, New Jersey and Florida. The volunteers will literally re-build houses or “work” in a massive Christian mission unit that has restocked and resupplied its space more than ten times since the tornado struck. For their efforts, The Leadership Jefferson County and the NAACP honored the leadership of Temple Emanu-El and its senior rabbi, Jonathan Miller, in a ceremony last week. The ceremony “Hats Off” also recognized 40 of the state’s First Responders in the wake of the tornado.

The Conservative congregation, Beth El, organized a Mother’s Day event with proceeds going to re-building and their members, too, have opened their doors to those who wish to come to Birmingham to join volunteer forces.

Even the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) in Tuscaloosa joined in the efforts to mobilize volunteers and re-building programs, thanks to the passion from David Aresty, of Alfred Dunner Clothing, and his wife. Aresty, a graduate of the University of Alabama and a ZBT member, organized a benefit event in early June to support responses to the catastrophe.

Joyce Spielberg of the Birmingham Jewish Federation stated that the tornado took the lives of over 250 people and destroyed 11,000 homes in the area. The Birmingham Jewish Federation has distributed nearly $100,000 for tornado relief (with $25,000 coming from their resources and the rest coming from donations from around the city, state and country). This represents a state-wide response effort from the 5,000 Jewish residents of Birmingham.

Knesseth Israel, Birmingham’s Orthodox congregation, is participating in the efforts of the other local Jewish organizations as well. The tornados missed their building and the local Chabad by only a matter of a few suburban blocks. It also narrowly missed the Hillel building on the campus of the University of Alabama. Knesseth Israel is partnering with a volunteer coordination service called Nechama and will house and train volunteers. They will provide sleeping arrangements and meals for out of town volunteers.

When asked about the overall impact of the community, Gross stated that “people need help getting their lives back together. People will be affected until they can get back to a normal life and we see our responsibility to help our neighbors, friends and have called on others to join in an effort that would be appropriate when others face disasters so close to home. ”

Ways to Help Birmingham:

Temple Emanu-El: 205 933-8037

Knesseth Israel: 205 969-5913

Birmingham Jewish Federation: 205 879-0416

As we looked at response to a true disaster, we also asked if any of the non-profits themselves had created disaster relief plans. What if you and your organizations experienced the destructive powers of Mother Nature? Would you, and how would you, help your community rebuild?

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.